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Citizens Seek to Save Leonhard Seppala’s House, and Legacy, in Nome

A dilapidated structure in downtown Nome, believed to have once been the home of Leonhard Seppala.

It doesn’t look like much: a small wooden building with chipping blue paint and a boarded-up door. But according to some, this house on Bering Street is a key to Nome’s heritage.

Urtha Lenharr believes what makes the house special is the man who used to live there:

“The history is so vast of this one particular man, from gold mining to dog breeding to dog racing, and also being a hero of the trail, saving the town of Nome from the diphtheria epidemic.”

Lenharr is talking about Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who arrived in Nome in the early 1900s to work as a gold miner. Seppala helped introduce Siberian Huskies as a working dog in Alaska, and he was a key musher in the 1925 serum run.

Seppala is believed to have lived in this little blue house in downtown Nome. Despite its apparent historic value, the property has not been maintained. It’s in such poor condition, the Nome Planning Commission recommended it be demolished — unless serious improvements were made.

That’s where Lenharr comes in. A teacher in Nome for 20 years, Lenharr had long dreamed of fixing up the property and turning it into a Leonhard Seppala museum. He no longer lives in Nome, but when he heard the house was slated for demolition, he got to work raising money and making plans to preserve it.

As for his personal stake in the project:

“I’m a dog musher. Anybody that’s a dog musher and lives in northwest Alaska knows that Leonhard Seppala started long-distance sled dog racing. So, to have a piece of history like that still being in Nome and not having it destroyed is very important.”

Lenharr happens to be friends with the Krier family, who owned the property. After making an agreement with the city that the structure will be relocated by July 1st, the Kriers transferred ownership of the house to Lenharr.

A couple stepped forward with space on their property in Glacier Creek to relocate the house during its reconstruction. Although he’s still locking down the details of the move, Lenharr is looking ahead:

“The next thing I need, besides money coming in to put into materials, is volunteers to help do the construction work. It’s not a building; it shouldn’t be a big construction job. It’s just a matter of getting volunteers to go up and do that kind of work.”

If the house has not been moved by July 1st, it is subject to removal by the city. But Lenharr is confident the project will come through:

“Nome’s a small town, but we all pull together when something’s needed.”

To guide and finance the project, Lenharr has established a non-profit with a seven-member board of directors. They are currently fundraising and doing research for the restoration. Lenharr says he hopes to have the house fully repaired within a year.

Image at top: Leonhard Seppala is believed to have lived in this house on Bering Street in downtown Nome. Photo: Zoe Grueskin, KNOM.